LIFE IN A BROTHEL

The many men of Sonagachi—India’s largest red light district

Quartz india
Quartz india

The rooms have a double bed, an iron cupboard, a few utensils tucked away in a corner and a tiny refrigerator placed on a high wooden stool. Curtains hang at windows, pictures of Bollywood actors on the walls and young women roam around in towels and nightgowns, chatting volubly in Bengali. Bollywood hits rend the air—now loud, now muted, as doors open and close.

This is a typical brothel in Sonagachi, the largest red light district in India, home to around 7,000 sex workers living and working in multi-storied buildings along the congested, decrepit bylanes of north Kolkata.

The tales of Sonagachi’s women are well-documented. But in these squalid streets, along with thousands of sex workers, countless men—pimps, “babus” and servants— too, survive on the trade. These are some of their stories.

The babu

Shantiranjan Saha, 42, is completely at ease in the expansive mansion. It has 10 rooms on the ground, first and second floors, with typically one sex worker to a room. There are a total of 38 people living in the brothel, including the children. And Saha is what Sonagachi’s sex workers call a “babu.”

“Babu means boyfriend or husband,” grins Saha, revealing the stains of paan on his teeth. “A husband whom the girl has not married, an illegal husband,” he laughs, prompting catcalls and mirth from the listening audience. There are sex workers, other babus and a couple of servants, all of whom gather around the wooden bench Saha is sitting on.

“I came here to Sonagachi 15 years ago from a village in Burdhman district in north Bengal,” continues Saha, pulling on a cigarette. “I came here to work, soliciting customers for some sex workers here.”

“Then I met Shonali (name changed). I fell in love,” he grins.

Saha’s grin fades a little when he talks of his family back in Burdhman. A wife and three children were left behind at home 15 years ago. And although he does visit them once a month to hand them some money, his real home, he says, is at Sonagachi. “This is my life,” he admits. “Shonali and I are in love. I stay with her, take care of her, I cook and clean for her and she gives me money to send home so that I will continue to take care of her.”

The babus of Sonagachi essentially perform the duties of wives in traditional Indian society—cooking, cleaning and dealing with emotions and comforting the sex workers on bad days. These men do not work for a living but rather live off the largesse of their lovers.  These men do not work for a living but rather live off the largesse of their lovers. Out of every Rs 1,000 ($15) earned by Shonali, her babu lays claim to Rs300 ($4.8). “Many young women here are stupid,” says a senior sex worker, Purnima Chatterjee.

“They think they are in love and they keep giving all of their income to some useless babu who simply exploits them. We call these types of babus ‘lenewala babus’ (babu who takes). There are ‘denewala babus’ (babu who gives), too. They are fixed customers who prefer a particular sex worker,” she explains.

Saha says he asked Shonali to stop working as a sex worker once they got together six years ago. “We both now have 10 girls under us,” explains Saha. “They work for us and give us a percentage of their earnings,” he states. In local parlance, he is also a “malik,” an owner.

The pimp

Another young man joins the conversation—putting a leg up on the bench.

“Love!” he hoots, lighting up a cigarette. “Love is like water here. Today you fall in love with one person, tomorrow you are in love with another. Life goes on in this manner here,” he laughs.

Bapi Behra, 32, is from a tiny hamlet in neighbouring Odisha. He is a pimp, soliciting customers for a number of sex workers. He came to Sonagachi 12 years ago, leaving his new bride back home. “I used to drive a truck in Odisha,” he explains. “There was hardly enough money in it to feed the family. My wife was 16 years old at the time and it was a love marriage. I now have two kids and I travel home every couple of months to give them money,” he says.

Behra’s wife thinks her husband works as a cleaner in Kolkata. “She doesn’t need to know details of my job, she doesn’t ask either,” said Behra. “I earn 10 times more money here than I did in Odisha. But I do miss my family. I will go back home once I have made enough money,” he says. Going back home with a sackful of money is a dream that echoes amongst the men of Sonagachi. Going back home with a sackful of money is a dream that echoes amongst the men of Sonagachi. 

“I am only here to make money,” says 23-year-old Sanjay Sinha, another pimp. “I don’t relish what I do but a job is a job and money is money. It is all about the stomach at the end of the day, isn’t it? I’ll also go home once I have enough money.”

Pimps like Behra and Sinha solicit customers in a number of ways. Some, like Sinha, stand on the roadside along Chittaranjan Avenue and sidle up to prospective customers. They usually work for the younger sex workers, between 18 and 25 years of age.

Behra deals with managers of small and mid-sized hotels and solicits for older, more experienced sex workers. There are no official estimates of the number of pimps living inside or outside of Sonagachi.

The dangers of being a pimp are predominantly run-ins with the law. While pimps and the police usually have a symbiotic relationship that includes a monthly bribe being given to the policemen, some pimps who also indulge in petty crimes have a hard time with the law enforcement agencies.

The servant

A young fresh-faced man appears from a room, clad in a sando ganjee (v-neck, sleeveless vest) and shorts, both of which are soaked in sweat. Gautham Das looks much younger than his 32 years and he is an assistant—or servant—of the house.

Das has just finished washing the common areas, in an effort to rid the house of the smell of the previous night’s revelries.  Das has just finished washing the common areas, in an effort to rid the house of the smell of the previous night’s revelries. His next task is to wash the clothes of the sex workers he serves.

“Oh no, I will never bring my wife here,” he says with some alarm. “She knows I cook and clean in Sonagachi and she is okay with that, but if she ever sees this place she will burst into tears and insist I return home,” he says. Das also has two young children left behind at a village in Odisha’s Baleswar district.

After studying up to class 10, he was forced to quit school and work as an agricultural labourer to supplement his family’s meagre income. He says his entire village is impoverished and most men have left seeking jobs in larger cities. Back home he made Rs1,500 ($24) a month, now he earns a little over thrice that amount.

“I cannot do anything for my daughters. I will never make enough money for that,” he explains. “Getting them married off will be a big deal, where will I find money to educate them and ensure they get good jobs?”

“No, I do not have dreams for my children,” Das adds, “Maybe, once they have their own children, we might be able to dream of a good future for them. That’s my only hope.” An education till class 10 apparently does not mean much. He feels he has no choice but to live and work here.

As Das heads off to do the laundry, it is lunch time in Sonagachi. A simple meal cooked by the men, and evidently relished by the women.

A short siesta later, business will become brisk. The pimps and some babus sneak away, leaving the women to their jobs.

Other men will troop in later, for sex, from anywhere between Rs100 ($1.5) and Rs2,400 ($38) a night.

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